September 14, 2017

Common Sense—Out the Window!

Over the years, the Western Growers Science and Technology department has served as the tip of the spear in advancing common sense and practicality on big issues impacting the industry.

In our last 10 years, we have served Western Growers members by advancing programs such as the Leafy Greens Marketing Agreements, which set the standard for and changed the food safety landscape of the entire fresh produce industry. We have shaped policy at the national level on potential contaminants that are naturally occurring such as perchlorate and heavy metals. We have, when it served our members’ interests, even owned and registered key pesticides because manufacturers did not want to take the risk of marketing a product on the smaller acreages inherent in produce crops (compared to field crops). In recent times, because we recognize it is vital to the future viability and success of the broader industry, we invested heavily in accelerating the availability of key ag technologies that will help us produce more food with fewer inputs and a smaller footprint on the planet. All of these are issues that seem widely known and are often talked about.

What is not so widely known is how we engage on a daily basis with members facing the numerous ridiculous problems that seem to crop up and confront them. I write this Science and Tech column to assure our members that we are an advocate in your corner on all things. While we may not have all the answers at our fingertips, we are poised to find the answers and you have no greater impassioned colleagues in your corner. Let’s look back at a recent week in August just to give you an idea of the issues that our members are dealing with…and how common sense has fled the scene.


How many hearts in a bag? Consumers need data to make informed purchasing decisions—no one argues that point. But we can and should argue what is sufficient data. Numerous firms pack commodities in bags based on count—this is a long established industry convention. A classic example is a sleeve of three romaine hearts in a single bag. Front and center of the bag typically says “3” count, although it is a clear plastic sleeve (the epitome of consumer transparency) and one could readily count the hearts if the declaration were not there. One state, New Jersey, has decided that this information is insufficient for a consumer to make a value judgement and has stopped sale and cited shippers for not including the net weight on the bag. This is nonsense!

Labeling and packaging uniformity in the United States is guided by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) which has a mission to facilitate uniformity of labeling and packaging. What causes a single regulatory entity to interpret things differently than every other state and to fly in the face of national guidance on the issue? National guidance from NIST states “When a packaged consumer commodity is properly measured in terms of count only, or in terms of count and some other appropriate unit, and the individual units are fully visible to the purchaser, such packages shall be labeled in full accord with this Regulation….” And yet a single jurisdiction in the United States has deemed this “insufficient.”

Science and Tech is currently working with other members of the WG team (legal and trade practices) and impacted parties (members who have been cited and had product held) to try to help support the longstanding industry convention, which is based on common sense. No telling today whether or how this gets resolved (may take a legal battle) but currently we are working to drive home with those who will listen the ludicrous nature of this requirement and the potential broader impact on an industry that packs more than romaine hearts by count.

Labeled or generic products? In another label-related issue—Science and Tech has recently been asked by a member to help sort out the requirements associated with the use of hydrogen peroxide to help maintain drip lines and equipment. The question here: “Is a grower required to use a labeled product or can they use a generic product.” Labels are required (typically by USEPA) when a manufacturer is making some sort of claim—such as claiming a product controls insects, bacteria or weeds. In the case of hydrogen peroxide, there are suppliers who are making claims and others who are not. Because the registration process is expensive (a lot of studies and data are necessary to register a product with USEPA), the cost to purchase a labeled product can be multiples of what it might cost to purchase a non-labeled version. The confounding factor is each product may be exactly the same (active ingredient, concentration, inerts etc.) so why require a grower to pay the higher cost for the exact same product?

Another example of an issue where common sense seems to be missing involves pesticide residues and radishes. WG recently received a call from a member company because the state regulatory agency with oversight on pesticide residues is regulating the tops of radishes differently from the radish itself. The state considers radish tops to be edible and so has established residue standards for the tops that conflict with those for the root (radish). This has implications for other commodities (such as beets) where both tops and roots may be consumed. It seems that state has not worked with the industry to understand typical Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs established for radishes and so members are boxed into exceeding residue standards on either tops or roots when employing typical pest treatment programs or failing to control the key pests.

None of these issues are resolved at the point of this writing, but I relay this information to point out that these issues seem to defy common sense. They are examples of the overreach or at least failure to think things through on the part of various regulatory bodies that need to be reconciled with the practicalities of the grower’s struggle to produce a safe and wholesome crop without falling into some bizarre regulatory jeopardy that defies logic. Science and Tech is active in working with both the member and the agency in question to try to bridge these gaps of understanding, and bring some semblance of clarity forward for all parties.